I Didn't Want to Talk About It: Masculinity and Mental Illness
Thirteen months ago I had a mental break down. At that point, it was more like I finally admitted to myself I had had one. I had spent the previous two months in bed pretending everything was ok while I stopped going to classes or seeing my friends or cooking or exercising or showering. When I look back at this period of my life, it strikes me that I was preparing to die. I didn't want to go out in some spectacular fashion, I didn't want to be mourned, I just wanted to turn into smoke or a pile of ash and vanish.
My journey to that point in my life had started over a decade earlier in middle school when I realized that swaths of my life were painted gray. I enjoyed nothing and no one for months at a time. As a result, I never joined clubs or hung out after school. I always had friends but we were never close. I felt trapped in social situations and drained by them. My moodiness and irritability were written off by my parents and teachers as normal pre-teen angst.
Things got better through high school. I learned that I enjoyed playing music and being with women and men, as well as English classes and coffee. A brief stint doing parkour taught me I felt better when I exercised. There was some light to be had in those years. However, my tendency to withdraw followed me and left me emotionally cold, repeating the same patterns I had in middle school. I had a continuous string of short lived relationships in the place of meaningful friendships. I became the leader of band in the after school program so I would never have to compromise or be vulnerable. My sense of self was rooted in a feeling of superiority that I only got to keep so long as no one saw how brittle I had become.
All the while I became an absurd version of a man's man. I think most young men want to feel like they are already grown, I certainly wanted to, and so I pointed out every new hair on my lip and ran around flexing my 130 lb frame like a shrinky-dink version of Rambo. And no one ever challenged me on my bullshit. My sense of entitlement, my refusal to acknowledge that I felt or cared about anything were seen as good things. I was told I was growing into a fine man, and so I assumed every other fine young man I knew was also deeply sad and that by swallowing it we were becoming strong.
That mentality is in part why it took 11 years to diagnose my Major Depressive Disorder. I carried it with me through college where I learned to use drugs to eradicate the pain and a good portion of my memories of sophomore year. I carried it with me when in my Senior year I realized I had only made two friends of any lasting value and that I had effectively driven them both away. I carried it with me up until 13 months ago when I used the point of a knife to test how much pressure it would take to break the skin. It was too much. I called my parents and left school the next day.
It has been over a year and now the world is larger than my sorrow. I still struggle and I except to for the rest of my life, but now I know it is ok to talk about it. The concept of hyper-masculinity that our culture espouses as normal and healthy revolves around the idea that men are defined by their actions, not their feelings. Good men should be stoic. Good men should not hurt. This is bullshit. If you are a man (or a woman, or something in between or other than) and you feel any of the ways I described, please get help. No one but you can do it, and until you do you won't know how much you deserve it.
These links should be helpful:
Brooklyn College Mental Health Services
Suicide Prevention Lifeline